Path 1: Recruit the best basketball player possible and ride the rocket as far as possible. If it’s a one-year wonder, so be it. To win an NCAA title, talent trumps all. That’s the ticket.
Path 2: Recruit the basketball player tracked for the long haul. Continuity is the key. To win an NCAA title, experience trumps all. That’s the ticket.
We know Kentucky’s path; same as it ever was, at least since John Calipari arrived on campus. The results speak for themselves. One national title. Two national championship games. Four Final Four trips in seven years. A total of 28 NBA draft picks; 21 first-rounders. Nineteen of the 21 were one-and-dones.
No different now. Calipari’s 2016-17 edition will lean on first-year talent. Guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk will pack the scoring punch. Bam Adebayo is the frontcourt force. Wenyen Gabriel is the Energizer bunny. Sacha Killeya-Jones has a smooth stroke and, according to Calipari, a better game than advertised.
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Kentucky again projects as a national title contender, but what have recent national champions told us about such aspirations. Is hitching your wagon to shooting stars the best approach? Or must you pay your dues before cutting down the nets? Turns out, there’s not one clear path.
Connecticut in 2011: Score one for the graybeards. Jim Calhoun’s Huskies edged Calipari’s Cats in the Final Four, then battered Butler in a brutally bad national title game. Junior guard Kemba Walker led the way. As Big East Tournament MVP, he scored 130 points in five games. Six games later, Walker was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAAs.
Kentucky in 2012: Score one for the young guns. You know the details. Kentucky beat Kansas in the national title game for the school’s eighth national title and Calipari’s first. Anthony Davis, a freshman, was Most Outstanding Player. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, jack of all trades, and point guard Marquis Teague played key roles. Both were freshmen. All three continued on to the NBA.
Louisville in 2013: Experience made a comeback. Rick Pitino’s title team respected its elders. Senior point guard Peyton Siva stirred the Cardinals’ drink. Junior guard Russ Smith was a scoring machine. Junior transfer Luke Hancock, crafty with a soft shooting touch, won NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors.
Connecticut in 2014: Aside from Kevin Ollie as coach and Shabazz Napier as veteran guard, this was a carbon copy of UConn’s 2011 crown. The Huskies played spoiler to Kentucky’s surprise finals berth. A senior, Napier led the way with 22 points in the title game. He had help. Junior guard Ryan Boatright scored 14 points. Overlooked was senior Niels Giffey’s 10 points.
Duke in 2015: Another one for youth. Mike Krzyzewski’s one-and-done adoption paid a handsome dividend. Led by freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones, the Blue Devils rewarded Coach K with his fifth national crown thanks to a win over Wisconsin’s old-school approach in the finals.
Villanova in 2016: The Wildcats were wily in the way of veterans. Senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono was the heart and soul of Jay Wright’s title team. Senior center Daniel Ochefu set the tone beneath the basket. And Kris Jenkins, who drained the winning buzzer-beater that returned North Carolina to Chapel Hill as runners-up, was a junior. For Villanova, age mattered.
The consensus is there is no consensus. Different paths can lead to the same destination. Either way, one thing seems certain. Experience is great; talent is essential.